Pull Up a Chair!

by Lori Eggleston. 0 Comments

If you’ve ever been camping, you know that it’s helpful to bring along a camp chair.  Surgeons in the Civil War discovered the same thing!

 

In this Library of Congress photo taken in 1863, and titled, “Bealeton, Va. Noncommissioned officers’ mess of Co. D, 93d New York Infantry” you can see that the men are seated on folding camp chairs.

This Civil War folding camp chair belonged to Assistant Surgeon Sheffield Greene of the 15th New York Cavalry. It is a small chair, standing just over 31” high when unfolded. It folds flat when not in use, and the back wood support behind the seat also functions as a carrying handle.

 

Let’s find out a little more about the owner of this chair.  Sheffield Wells Greene was born in Hopkinton, Rhode Island, in 1814.  He attended Geneva Medical College in 1845 which made him a bit older than most medical students.  He began practicing medicine after his graduation in 1846.  On December 26, 1863, he enlisted with Company D, 15th New York Cavalry Regiment.  I was not able to find an image of him, but the vital statistics on his enlistment papers list him as being a 44 year old physician, 5’ 10” tall, with gray eyes, black hair, and a dark complexion.  There is a discrepancy here regarding his age, as according to the birth date listed in his family records he would have actually been 49 years old when he enlisted.  It’s possible he was afraid of being rejected and so lied about his age.  It’s also possible the age listed on his enlistment papers is a clerical error.  In either case, it is interesting to note that he was older than the average Civil War recruit.

Though there is no record of Assistant Surgeon Greene being wounded in battle, he was sent to the Geisboro hospital in Washington D.C. in April 1864.  A month later he returned to camp, but it was recorded that he was still unable to perform his regular duties.  There is one notation in the Company Muster Roll which indicates he was “Absent on detached service” and assigned as a nurse at the Camp Stoneman Hospital starting in July 1864.  It was a common practice at the time to assign some of the nearly-recovered patients to nursing duties.

An excerpt from a later letter to the Pension Office uncovers the reason for his hospitalization:  “…during the forepart of the months of April 1864 while on return march from Burlington Gap, West Virginia [we] dismounted.  And in consequence of exposure at Springfield, West Virginia, and being under orders to continue the march of the mountains on the way to Pleasant Valley state of Maryland was turned over by Order for Rupture to the camp Hospital at that place and remained there about one week, and from there to Washington D.C.   My comrade Rev. David Rittenhouse who had entire charge of me and had the said order of the evidence of this disability that the Diarrhea followed in train, from which I never recovered, and that I was treated for Rupture in the Hospital by the proper treatment of Suspencery Bandages and for the Diarrhea secundum artem and that I was in the fourth ward Hospital at Camp Stoneman D.C. and also at Judiciary Square Hospital D.C. December 1864 and remained there until in January 1865 and that said Rupture was brought upon me as alleged in my original applications by carrying heavy Cavalry Baggage on the return march from West Virginia.”

In other words, he developed a hernia, and chronic diarrhea  – a prevalent complaint for Civil War soldiers!  A hospital record from his stay at Judiciary Square General Hospital in December 1864 lists his age as 50 (which supports his enlistment age of 49).  He was diagnosed there with hydrocele and was granted a furlough on December 16, 1864.  After reporting back for duty in January 1865, he was commissioned into Field & Staff New York 147th Infantry.  Despite his medical issues, it appears that he continued to serve for as long as he was able.  He was mustered out on June 7, 1865, and he returned home to New York to practice medicine.

There are no manufacturer’s marks on the chair, but it does have the initials ‘S.W.G’ stenciled in black paint onto the back of the chair. Perhaps they were put there by the doctor himself?

 

In May of 1882, Dr. Greene applied for a pension, but a series of letters between him and the pension office indicate that there was some question as to whether his disability was sustained during his service or was a preexisting condition.  Ultimately it was argued that his recruitment papers stated he had been examined by a physician and found to be in good health when he enlisted.  It took four years, but his request was finally approved.  He died in 1899 at the age of 85, and is buried in the Richburg Cemetery in Wirt, NY.

A bit more about Dr. Greene is found in the book, Allegany County and Its People: a centennial memorial history of Allegany County, New York, by John Stearns Minard and Georgia Drew Merrill.  The conclusion of the summary of his life tells more about his character, “The doctor for 40 years has given arduous and unspared labors for the relief of human suffering, and can look back along an honest and diligent life with a consciousness of doing well all duties falling to his lot.”

 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.

You can view my entire blog at www.guardianoftheartifacts.blogspot.com.

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